Gardening: Healthy for Our Mind

This morning I saw my internist for my annual physical. We reviewed health data, such as the results of blood tests, including my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. I’m happy to say that the results were good! When the doctor brought up the subject of exercise. I teased that I wanted credit for all the strenuous work that I do in the garden, explaining the many tasks required to grow a large garden. “Just last night I was out there until well after 11 pm,” I reported. A questioning look flashed across the doctor’s face. I guessed at his question, and with a shrug I explained, “I was wearing a headlamp, and the time got away from me.”

I noted that while the same quizzical look had remained on his face, a tiny smile had tugged at the corners of his mouth for a split-second and had then been stifled. “He thinks I’m crazy,” I thought to myself. I told him of how I look forward throughout the day to an hour or so in the evening when I can tackle one or more gardening tasks. “Last night I was preparing additional rows for planting,” I added. To my surprise the doctor began to describe the benefits I could experience from gardening–specifically he spoke of mental health benefits.

When I am alone in the garden and can focus on a task I know well, my mind can fully attend to what is happening, to what I am doing and to what is needed. I am consumed by the work and I relax into the task. My mind doesn’t attend to other topics or become distracted from my focus. What is happening at the moment becomes my sole focus and the pace of time begins to accelerate away from my awareness of it. I don’t care about being hungry or tired, I’m too involved to notice. Afterwards, when I transition away from the work, I will be surprised how much time has passed.

Water FlowAccording to positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, PhD, what I describe as my experience last night is known as “flow” or a state of complete immersion in an activity. In his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” He then goes on to explain that when you’re completely involved in flow, you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels or to pay attention to your mind chatter.

The understanding of the concept of flow was a result of research on happiness. When considering the questions “What makes us happy?” and “When are we most happy?” research psychologists recognized that being able to achieve this state of flow–which is deeply satisfying and enjoyable–is a key component of happiness.

No wonder I enjoy gardening–it makes me happy. Have you experienced a state of flow in your work or life interests? It will most likely occur in an activity that you can perform with unconscious competency. Flow experiences can occur in different ways for different people. Some might experience flow while engaging in play or a favorite sport. Others might have such an experience while painting, drawing, or writing. I personally find I also experience flow when I’m fly fishing a favorite river, or teaching content where I have significant expertise.

Please share your experiences or questions in the comments and let’s figure out how to flow along happily.

Grow Well,

The Midnight Gardener

 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.

 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004, February). Flow. The Secret to Happiness. https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

Laundry Room Seedling Nursery

I spent several hours this weekend moving tomato seedlings from seedling trays into large pots. I noticed that Jennifer has already told you that I grow too many plants. If you ask me, the problem, more specifically, is that I allow too many plants to live! Gardening books tell us to plant extra seeds in case something goes wrong. I start tomato seeds in small trays, for example, and I may plant two seeds in a cell. As the small seedlings emerge and begin to grow, I’m supposed to then choose the best and eliminate the other. Instead, I often tease the tiny seedlings apart and transplant both into pots. Volià–just like that we end up with dozens of extra plants.

1 (3)I’m worried that I didn’t get to the tomato seedling earlier. The plants look a bit stressed. I was just too busy when the time was right. I hope they will soon return to stretching out their roots in the luxurious space of  their new pots and that their leaves will again be vibrant and resume vigorous growth.

When I was  new to gardening we purchased a lot of seedings from nearby nurseries. As I gained experience, I wanted to grow specific varieties that could not be found as seedlings. I wanted to grow these varieties for a number of reasons–primarily because they were adapted to my region, but also because they were known to be superior in flavor or some other quality. While the varieties could not be found as seedlings, the seeds could be purchased.

And so I determined to grow the seedlings myself. I begged for some space in the laundry room and I purchased some equipment and supplies. Prior to planting, I fill seedling plug trays with moistened sterile seedling mix and I prepare small plant labels for each variety.  Once the seeds are planted, I place a clear plastic dome over the tray to ensure the conditions stay ideal. The trays go under lights on a top shelf in our laundry room. The shop light hanging there (this one from Home Depot) has six T8 fluorescent bulbs in the daylight color range (6500K), which makes the room seem as bright and cheery as a sunny morning. The lights are plugged into a simple timer, simplifying their operation. A heating mat controlled by a thermostat encourages germination and a small fan ensures healthy air movement and realistic conditions. I observe the plant trays carefully, and I water the seedlings as needed.

After a several weeks the now larger seedlings are transplanted into larger pots filled with a perlite-rich potting mix (I use this one as it ensures good drainage which is important here in the Pacific Northwest) and relocated to lighted shelves in our unheated garage in order begin the process of hardening off the seedlings as they adapt to the powerful sunshine and outside temperatures. On sunny days I relocate the seedlings out of doors, and I return them to the garage each evening. I watch the weather in order to be aware of cold snaps and rainy or winds days, and I keep the plants watered.

All this is a lot of work, but the result is that we can grow a garden of amazing varieties that succeed in this area and provide delicious results!

Grow well,

The Midnight Gardener

Pruning Fruit Trees

Saturday was sunny and not too cold, the perfect weather for pruning our fruit trees. Does pruning also hold a bit of mystery for you? I have studied the topic, and while the basics were clear, it remained a mysterious art to me for years. Even though the authors offered guidelines, photos and some diagrams, because those images didn’t look like my trees, I was still left uncertain. By applying the guidelines and my limited sense of esthetics, I started experimenting. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I still often wonder whether I’ve done it “right.” I am not yet an expert home orchardist, but I am learning. The trees are healthy and we get good amounts of fruit, so I know I’m doing some things well.

What have I learned?

  • I prune the fruit trees during the late winter while the plants are dormant.
  • Because I know that a blunt tool can lead to unintended damage to a tree, I sharpen my tools frequently. This step also makes the work easier.
  • To prevent the spread of disease, I keep my tools clean and the cutting blades disinfected. I repeat this between trees. To make this easy, I use bleach-free disposable wipes.
  • I know how to use four pruning cuts (pinching, heading, thinning, shearing) as appropriate and I understand each will result in corresponding change in the growth of the tree.

Pruning Resources:

Pruning Basics from OSU Extension Service

Pruning Your Home Orchard from OSU Extension Service

Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees from UC Davis Cooperative Extension

Disinfect Your Tools to Prevent Disease

 

The dormant season is also an ideal time to plant trees.

  • You can purchase trees sold as “bareroot” plants, growing in containers, or with their root ball wrapped in burlap.
  • I prefer bareroot trees for two reasons: 1.) they are relatively lightweight which makes them easier to move and plant, and 2.) the roots are visible such that I can determine their condition.
  • I have planted fruit trees from containers, and those trees have flourished for the most part, but I have also found trees for sale that had been in the container too long and had developed circling roots that could strangle the tree, and wouldn’t venture far into the surrounding soil leading to a less healthy and potentially unstable tree.

Planting Resources:

Planting Your Bareroot Fruit Tree by UGA Extension

Planting Bareroot Trees from Fine Gardening Magazine

 

Garden well,

The Midnight Gardener

Start with Good Seeds

Long before it is time to plant seeds, while it is still winter outside here in western Washington, there are steps you can take to get great results in your garden. What planning do you do now?

My planning starts with reflecting on the prior year, and establishing a plan for the coming season.

  • What crops grew well, and what didn’t?
  • What were the biggest successes at the dinner table? Anything we didn’t like?
  • Did we grow too much or too little of anything?

The next step in planning for me is learning about and acquiring seeds. While I buy a lot of seeds, I also grow and save some of my own seeds and I swap seeds with other gardeners. I rarely buy anything from the seed racks at the national retailers however. Large-scale seed suppliers offer their top quality seed to farmers. Home gardeners aren’t their top priority. In my experience, such seeds lead to limited success and considerable frustration.

Over the years I have had the best results by selecting high-quality varieties that are adapted to my climate and region. For example, I live in the U.S., north of Seattle, Washington, where we have relatively mild winters and a late start to sunny, summer conditions. I have to select early varieties and perhaps use season extending techniques. If I were to choose plant varieties that require a long growing season, nothing would be ready for harvest before end of the season.

Instead I buy from seed companies who cater primarily to small-scale growers and home gardeners. The best suppliers also operate regional trial grounds and conduct regular germination tests. Take a look at one of their seed catalogs and you will note that such companies distinguish themselves by offering fantastic culture information about each plant. Reading these catalogs will provide a gardener with a lot of information about the advantages of different varieties and the way in which the best grow them.

This is a list of my favorite seed companies:

Garden well,

The Midnight Gardener

My Late Night Habit

I appreciate Jen’s invitation to offer some insights to you here on her blog. What she wrote is true–I have spent hours in the garden late at night when all is dark except for the rich brown soil just within the circle of light being cast by my headlamp. I do admit to having set up, on a few occasions, a pair of portable work lights with their dazzling halogen bulbs so I could flood a swath of the yard in 1,400 watts of near noonday brilliance. I’m sure those nights frustrated the neighbors and confused the plants as both had expected darkness and rest.

I’m the son of a two parents who loved being in the garden. Dad taught me while leaning on a favorite hoe, as I stood in a furrow between rows of growing vegetable and berry plants and worked alongside him. Mom was there too, with me tagging along to harvest beans or raspberries, and later in the kitchen, dressed in a well-worn apron, she guided me in cooking and preserving what we grew.

Dad’s work as an agronomist involved conducting plant research. As a child I loved to visit the greenhouses and other research facilities, and when I reached my teen years I sometimes traveled with him to examine test plots in the fields of regional farming communities. Dad was raised on a farm, as was his father and grandfathers, and so I am the first generation removed from daily farm-life.

Are you at all like me? Do you make plans in the winter for the next gardening season? Do you peruse seed catalogs in January, start your seedlings in February, and erect a few cloches in March to allow the garden beds to dry? Maybe I’m the only one that finds myself thinking about the garden tasks that need doing on my commute home from work. In a way, getting out into the garden to make progress on just one goal is something that drives me during the day as if I’m rewarding myself for working hard at my job all day.

Gardening is a creative outlet for me where I can quickly see the results of my efforts. Don’t you find it rewarding to grow something beautiful and delicious? I like to experiment and try new things in an effort to get a better result, and this curiosity leads me to read a lot about the subject. My first efforts to grow my own garden were often frustrating, but those failures led me to understand more and to adapt my approach. Since then I’ve learned some of what works and what doesn’t.

In case we do have a bit in common, let me offer you some tips on selecting a great headlamp for midnight gardeners!

  • My priorities are a bright, adjustable beam with a comfortable headband, controls that are easy to manipulate with gloved hands and a housing that won’t be impacted by a bit of dirt.
  • I like the ability to quickly adjust the lamp to move from a bright, diffuse beam for working up close to a focused, penetrating beam with a long reach for scanning across the yard at night.
  • I like lamps that are durable without being overly bulky or heavy. Most that I’ve used recently take 3-AAA batteries, which works well. I tend to use the brightest settings, and this drains the batteries in only a few hours. I keep extras nearby.
  • Finally, I’m pragmatic and like a good deal!

Coast HeadlampMy current headlamp is the FL72 model by Coast. It has nice quality focusing optics that create a 405 lumen beam that will cover a distance of 450 feet. Jen found these at Costco in a two-pack for under $30. Don’t have a store nearby? At the time I write this, they are available online as well. Coast confirms these are the same product at their FL75 model, just in a two-pack for Costco. A single FL75 headlamp is selling today on Amazon for $44.49. Look at that–i just saved you some money!

Until next time,

The Midnight Gardener

Introducing my husband–The Midnight Gardener

Before my husband begins to post in this section, let me first show him to you through my eyes via the following story. Then I’ll tell you the story of how I came to call him The Midnight Gardener.

My husband gives very thoughtful gifts. After reading some of my stories and hearing my desire to share them, he gave me this website for my 45th birthday. Cool idea, huh? And, when I was fighting cancer in 2014, he ordered cancer awareness ribbon pins and wristbands to give to friends and family to wear in support of my fight. He even gave a pin to my thoracic surgeon. I would see it, pinned to the lapel of her white lab coat, each time I met with her, and now at my six month visits. You may or may not know this, but there are defined awareness colors for each kind of cancer. Lung cancer awareness is with a white ribbon. Doing this for me was wonderful, but it isn’t the gift I want to tell you about.

img_4862My favorite uncle (who is a landscape architect) came to stay with me during my treatments. He improved the landscaping in a section of my yard, starting a shade garden and planting several hostas. The Midnight Gardener, my endearing husband, finished this garden and surprised me by adding an array of flowering plants such that something will be in bloom year round, and all with white blossoms. He called it Jennifer’s Garden. Now, just out my window, I have a reminder that I am alive and still blooming. I love this man of mine!

Now, why the name The Midnight Gardener? My husband is the son of a plant scientist and he spent many days in test fields or in the home garden working with his dad in the soil. He spent a few summers on his grandparent’s farm, wishing he was big enough to lift a hay bale. I think he was around growing plants so much that learning how to grow a fantastic garden became a natural passion for him. He is also a detailed planner who likes work done to the highest quality. Need I say more? This work takes time. And when does a busy husband and father get time to work in the garden? Well, after work, helping with homework, bedtime stories and occasionally the dishes, he has a bit of time to head outdoors. The Midnight Gardner owns many headlamps, and construction-style outdoor lights. He can be seen in the vegetable garden late into the evening, sometime until midnight and beyond. In fact, it is true that I have had the neighbors call to warn me of what they perceived to be the flashlights of backyard intruders. I chuckled as I told them, “It is just my husband, the Midnight Gardener!”